What Does it Want to Be? 🔨

By: Lee LeFever

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.


One of the most vexing questions we’ve faced over the last year of designing and building the house is: "How do you want this?" It could be door trim, fasteners, or how the gutters connect to downspouts. It’s vexing for two reasons:

  1. The list of questions is long and new items are added every day
  2. Much of the time, we could only guess at the answers

When people say that building a house is a second full-time job for the owners, a good portion of the work is trying to answer that question: How do we want it? With the structural and architectural work complete, we are now the point people for decisions about finishes and details. After a visit with Drew at the site, we might come home with a list of things to consider. Recent examples include:

  • Fence height and material
  • Deck stair design
  • Backsplash height in the bathrooms

Thankfully, with so much of the house complete, these decisions become easier. I came to see that there were two big factors: what we want and what the house itself is telling us it wants. We don’t have to consider every possibility because the house’s design serves as context. Our architect John Stoeck often talks about design decisions in terms of what "it wants to be". Based on the house today, the floor wants to be a lighter color. The trim wants to be minimal.

The problem is that big decisions are hard to grasp in conversation. We understand that some designers say a low 2" backsplash can be a more modern touch. But how does a 2" backsplash look versus a more traditional 4" backsplash? We can look at websites and create 3d models, but there is no better way to make a decision than seeing a 2" backsplash in your bathroom, even if it’s made of wood. This is one of the big lessons we’ve learned from working with Drew and his team. If he senses that we’re not sure how to proceed, he defaults to creating a quick and temporary mock-up that often comes together while we’re on site.

I asked him about this perspective and he said, "You can talk about it over and over and still not get anywhere. You can even look at plans, but the same time could be used to create a version that’s close enough to make a decision."

sink backsplash

A couple of weeks ago, Drew said we needed to order deck railings, which meant making final decisions about the design. This is often how the process works. We might spend years thinking about the design and only commit at the last moment. Once the order is in, the money is spent and there’s no inexpensive way to go back. Drew doesn’t want us to be disappointed so he does what he can to help make the decision easier.

The next day, we visited the site and found a simple section of 2X4 railing nailed to the deck. One section was 36" high, another was 42" high. It cost very little in time and materials, but gave us a valuable way to make the decision. We could stand next to it, or view it from the kitchen to get a real feel for the difference in height. It was obvious then: the railing wanted to be 36" high.

deck railing

The Lesson

Drew’s approach to making quick and dirty mock-ups isn’t unique to construction. After seeing it in action, I started to notice that I do the same thing in my creative work. Sachi and I might discuss an idea, take notes, or do a quick sketch for a scene in a video. But nothing compares to getting started quickly.

Whether it’s a book or a Common Craft video, all the decisions and details can feel overwhelming in the beginning. Instead of trying to solve all the problems at once, I’ve learned to build my own quick and dirty mock-ups in the form of drafts that I can throw away. These drafts might be a video script or a book chapter that I don’t think too deeply about. The goal is to get words on the page and develop a sense of what the project wants to be.

For me, this is like looking at a mock-up of different railing heights from inside the house. Before investing, I can evaluate an idea with a quick assimilation of reality that can’t be achieved with discussion alone. I have to see it and hear how the words fit together, or not. The challenge is becoming comfortable with tossing bad versions in the trash and starting over.

Mocking Up the Great Room

When we move in, we’ll use chairs from the Hunter House, but over time, we plan to have some sort of couch arrangement that needs to fit nicely into the room. It’s not practical to build a mock-up of a couch, so I decided to make a scaled-down version of the room, which included paper cut-outs of future furniture options. We moved the paper around until it was clear that a loveseat would fit better then a full size couch.

Furniture model with paper

The success of almost any creative project doesn’t come from epiphanies or long hours or preparation as much as a willingness to get started quickly with a mock-up, evaluate, and keep pushing until it’s clear what the project wants to be.

2 Comments

  1. James Sherrett

    I recently listened to this podcast episode of The Profile, featuring Olympic swimmer Kara Lynn Joyce, and the thing that struck me as true and immensely helpful was her: Action is the antidote to doubt. Tons more good stuff in there too: https://youtu.be/XGAJHSeeSiY

    • Lee LeFever

      Oh, cool, thanks James! I will check that out! BTW, you now hold the title of “first commenter” on this blog. 🎉

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